Characteristics of ‘The Hero’
Raglan is best-known for his 1936 book The Hero, in which he worked out a sort of average biography of legendary heroes.
- Hero’s mother is a royal virgin;
- His father is a king, and
- Often a near relative of his mother, but
- The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
- He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
- At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather to kill him, but
- He is spirited away, and
- Reared by foster-parents in a far country.
- We are told nothing of his childhood, but
- On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future Kingdom.
- After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
- He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
- And becomes king.
- For a time he reigns uneventfully and
- Prescribes laws, but
- Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
- Is driven from the throne and city, after which
- He meets with a mysterious death,
- Often at the top of a hill,
- His children, if any do not succeed him.
- His body is not buried, but nevertheless
- He has one or more holy sepulchres.
This average biography must be interpreted rather loosely, or else hardly anyone will fit. "A god" can be one of several polytheist gods or a single monotheist one. A "king" can be any sort of great leader. "A far country" can be some very different community in the same nation. Etc.
Lord Raglan scored several heroes with his profile, adding up which criteria they satisfied. His scores:
Oedipus 21, Theseus 20, Romulus 18, Heracles 17, Perseus 18, Jason 15, Bellerophon 16, Pelops 13, Asclepius 12, Dionysus 19, Apollo 11, Zeus 15, Joseph (in Genesis) 12, Moses 20, Elijah 9, Watu Gunung (of Java) 18, Nyikang (Shiluk cult hero) 14, Sigurd or Siegfried 11, Llew Llawgyffes 17, King Arthur 19, and Robin Hood 13.
He was careful to avoid scoring Jesus Christ, for fear of an obvious sort of controversy. However, folklorist Alan Dundes had done so, finding a score of 20.
Comparing real and legendary people
Some other people have assessed other legendary heroes, discovering that these ones score high: Krishna, the Buddha, Harry Potter, Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa.
Problems and Extensions
How to interpret his profile has been a sticking point for some critics of it, some of whom tend to be excessively literal-minded about it. One does have to interpret it loosely, otherwise it would be hard for anyone to fit. Lord Raglan himself had conceded some problems, like about heroes' childhoods. It is rare to find documentation on anyone's childhood, but that lack of documentation is significant when one compares it to accounts of someone trying to kill the baby hero. Also, a strict interpretation of "virgin" for the hero's mother would rule out that criterion for many heroes. Lord Raglan had proposed that because many heroes are first or only children, meaning that their mothers are semi-virgins.
Some of the criteria could be split, like royal and virgin for the hero's mother, and marrying a princess and her being the daughter of the hero's predecessor.
One may also add some criteria, like child-prodigy stories and prophecy fulfillment.
Some heroes, like Augustus Caesar and Jesus Christ, had been rather extreme child prodigies. Jesus Christ showed how learned he was in the Jerusalem Temple, and Augustus Caesar hushed up some noisy frogs. Some Infancy Gospels go even further, portraying Jesus Christ as a childhood miracle worker.
Several heroes had fulfilled prophecies, often despite efforts to thwart that fulfillment: Jesus Christ, Krishna, the Buddha, Zeus, Oedipus, Perseus, Romulus, King Arthur, Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Anakin Skywalker, and Harry Potter.
In his book "On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We might have Reason to Doubt" (2014), Richard Carrier also considered extensions. He noted prophecy fulfillment, and also what may be called supernatural features:
- Pre-existing before earthly existence
- Being worshipped as a savior god
In a footnote, he notes:
Unquestionable miracle workers on the following list are Moses, Jesus, Theseus (who returned from the dead to fight supernaturally in wartime), Dionysus, Hercules (apart from his own supernatural feats in life, as a deity he answered prayers), Zeus, Osiris and Asclepius (the latter three were celebrated miracle-bringing gods), which already is more than half the list (eight in all). Others on the Rank–Raglan list may also have miracle legends associated with them.
Pre-existence is not as common, but in addition to working lots of miracles, Krishna, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ pre-existed. Krishna as an avatar of the god Vishnu, and the Buddha as a very enlightened being who decided to reincarnate himself so that he could enlighten us. Jesus Christ's pre-existence is evident from parts of the New Testament, like the beginning of the Gospel of John, and he became the Second Person of the Christian Trinity, God's "eternally begotten" son.
Savior gods are also not as common, but there are some, gods like Osiris and Asclepius and Krishna and Jesus Christ. There are also legends that state that King Arthur might someday return to rescue Britain, something that makes him an honorary savior god (King Arthur's messianic return - Wikipedia).
The numerous biographies of legendary heroes converging on Lord Raglan's profile suggests that there is something psychologically attractive or compelling about it, something that makes people want to revise existing biographies to fit it. However, it has been hard to find any research on the hypothesis that Lord Raglan's profile represents some psychologically-attractive one. Part of it is likely love of the dramatic, but the next question is why some drama and why not some other drama.
Such "Raglanization" of hero biographies may explain some favorite poorly-supported theories of recent times, like the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The most likely hypothesis is that the only one responsible was Lee Harvey Oswald, and that he had been a lone lunatic. In fact, several lone lunatics have killed or tried to kill US Presidents, with little or no evidence of broader conspiracies. But many people find it difficult to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was yet another lone lunatic; there are large numbers of people who have believed in various conspiracy theories about JFK's death. Such conspiracy theories fit #18, with his place of death, an open-top car in a parade, almost fitting #19.
Could there be some belief that it takes a powerful force to bring a hero down, a force much more powerful than a well-aimed bullet from a lone lunatic's gun?
Mythical vs. Well-Documented Heroes
When one calculates Lord Raglan scores, one is struck by the rarity or absence of much of the profile from the biographies of well-documented heroes, especially in modern times. Many modern heroes have very undistinguished parentage, and there is never any hint of their future destiny for much of their lives, let alone attempts to kill them in their infancy. Attempts like
- King Herod vs. Jesus Christ
- Pharaoh vs. Moses
- King Kamsa vs. Krishna
- King Amulius vs. Romulus
- King Laius vs. Oedipus
- King Acrisius vs. Perseus
- Pelias vs. Jason
- Tantalus vs. Pelops
- Hera vs. Hercules
- Hera vs. Dionysus
- Hera vs. Apollo
- Kronos vs. Zeus
- The Roman Senate vs. Augustus Caesar
- Lord Voldemort vs. Harry Potter
The Buddha's biography contains a curious variation. His father tried to raise him to be his heir, and to keep him away from scenes of pain and suffering so that he will not be provoked to become a great religious leader. But the Buddha sees such scenes, and he runs away from his family to start a spiritual journey that results in him becoming a great religious leader. But we never see any similar stories about modern heroes, like
- Southern plantation owners vs. Abraham Lincoln
- Fundamentalists vs. Charles Darwin
- Rabbis, Jewish bankers, and Jewish Marxists vs. Adolf Hitler
- Psychiatrists vs. L. Ron Hubbard
- Oil-company executives vs. Muammar Gaddafi
Turning to the end of their lives, well-documented heroes are seldom repudiated in the fashion of many legendary ones. They either retire in full glory, or get assassinated in the middle of their careers, or get overthrown by outside forces. Even in the latter sort of case, heroes like Napoleon and Hitler often have diehard followers who only became dissuaded by the prospect of defeat. However, some modern heroes have gotten repudiated, notably Tsar Nicholas II, Richard Nixon, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Muammar Gaddafi.
Also notable is that some well-documented heroes die in the opposite of a hilltop, in a subterranean location. Nicholas II was killed in a basement, Hitler committed suicide in a bunker, and Gaddafi was discovered hiding in a storm drain. There aren't many legendary heroes who had committed suicide while cowering in a cave or a dungeon.
This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).